What’s happened to the sunflowers?

Earlier this summer when I started putting the supers onto two of my hives, our beekeeper friend, Michel, told me that once the sunflowers opened across the road from us, the honey bees would fill one super in just one week.  Well, the sunflowers have certainly opened across the little road to our hamlet, only a few metres away from our four hives.

Looking at the hives through the sunflower fiield

Looking at the hives through the sunflower field

So, during the warm mornings, Amelia and I eagerly went in search of the bees across the road.

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Amelia walked right through the field but only found a few bumble bees and there were very few honey bees on the sunflowers.

What I have now discovered is that Michel was right and the honey bees did indeed collect loads of pollen and nectar from the sunflowers – however, the emphasis is on the past tense.

The disc florets in the centre of sunflowers have both male and female parts and each female part has a single ovary that develops into a seed.  It appears that the new varieties of seeds planted near us now are self fertilising type, thus eliminating the need for bees to fertilise the plant.  More importantly, these new varieties have a much longer neck to the style and as the nectaries are situated just above the ovaries, this makes it difficult for the honey bees to collect the nectar. So, although the sunflower field does look very pretty across our land, it does very little good for our bees.

On my visit next day, however, I did see a much pollen smothered bee homing in towards a sunflower.

Bee on sunflower

Bee on sunflower

She did look so pretty and I was fascinated to watch her rolling the little reddish ball of pollen on her hind legs.  I managed to take a short video clip of her.  If you would like to see it, please click here.

Nevertheless, we are lucky that there are a variety of flowers around us, as the supers  we put on two of our hives look well on the way to being filled.

So after all there was a happy ending despite the lack of nectar for our honey bees. – Kourosh

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23 thoughts on “What’s happened to the sunflowers?

    • I suppose we call this progress! I wonder? The producers of the new grains claim that the seeds are more productive and more resistant to disease. What I fear is changing the delicate balance in nature. – Kourosh

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  1. I was a beekeeper for many years therefore I find it very interesting reading about your bees. Once a beekeeper I don’t think you ever lose interest in them. The self fertile sunflowers do not sound like good news for the honey bees.

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    • Thank you. I am so glad that you remain interested in bees. They are fascinating. Aren’t they?
      I am in agreement with your comments that the new grains are not so good for the bees. But we are still lucky that we have so much wild flowers and trees around us, that keeps our bees really busy!
      P.S. I love the owl on your arms. (Is a Barn Owl?) – Kourosh

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  2. How sad. All that food but nothing to eat. What are we humans doing to the planet? But I guess this is going to become more common. As our activities kill off the bees (we, after all moved bees around the planet which moved pests and diseases to areas where there was no natural resistance, and we’re starving the bees and we’re killing them with pesticides) we’ll be looking more and more to science to find a way to produce food without depending on pollination. In so doing we’ll be reducing the food sources for the bees thereby reducing their ability to survive. What a nasty, viscous circle.

    The video was amazing. Such good shots of a hard-working bee. Are all your bees that dark? Most of ours are more golden. Many of the swarms we catch are darker but not as dark as yours.

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    • Laura, many thanks for the comment. I found watching the little bee was so fascinating collecting pollen. But as for the needed nectar to make honey – well, I am just glad that they seem to find so many other plants around us, as the supers on the two hives are filling up nicely.
      You are of course correct about what you say about the food production and the bees, but I am sure that the bees like the rest of us, will have to adapt to the change, and in due course forage elsewhere for food.
      As for our bees, the colony that I brought from the Perigeaux region of France are called the black bees. They are supposed to be quite productive; less tendency to swarm, but slightly more aggressive. Although I find them quite gentle. The majority of the local bees – including most of the bees in our other hives are of course cross breeds between buckfast bees and black bees. So in each hive we get quite blond looking bees – golden (very cute) and others are blackish bees. As you know once a new queen goes on her maiden flight, she mates with several male bees so the offsprings are only half sisters, so they don’t look the same. – Kourosh

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  3. So, is that what’s behind the bee’s shrinking numbers? Man’s making flowers and plants that self pollinate? This requires some research, but it certainly seems so!

    Thankfully the bees have been busy this summer in my Lantana, and Agapantha bushes, and this fall I hope to see them return to my Camellia bush.

    I’ll be replanting my front yard this fall with butterfly and bee attracting plants.

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    • Thanks for the comments. There are in reality many factors affecting both the honey bees and the solitary bees. I have already written about the asian and the european hornets that are constantly attacking the bees, but the biggest predator seems to be us the humans. I am all for innovation and invention, but in the long run I am unsure if some changes are good for us as well as other creatures.
      I am so glad that you are planting more bee and butterfly friendly flowers. My wife, Amelia has planted so many flowers and now walking through our garden is a joy looking at all the solitary and honey bees as well as dragon flies and butterflies – not to mention birds who come to eat the seeds and the berries (on plants such as the cotoneaster) – Kourosh

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  4. I have noticed that only the carpenter bees seem to feed on my hybrid sunflowers. I have noticed that there are far fewer honey bees this year although they do tend to feed in the middle of the day leaving early mornings and evenings to the solitary and bumble bees; my observations my not be very accurate because it has been so hot during the day that I don’t venture outside!

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    • Thank you, Christina. Your observation is fascinating as Amelia confirms that we have never seens carpenters on sunflowers here. We have many carpenters – and you can’t miss them – but they tend to be on the wisteria, which luckily seems to flower two or three times. Some are in flower yet.
      Most honey bees tend to gather pollen in early part of the day when it is quite warm and the pollen is fresh. By lunch-time the flowers are literally stripped of pollen. As to the nectar, that also seems to depend on the temperature when nectar flows easily.
      Amelia is always watching to see if the solitary bees and the honey bees compete for the food source. So far the jury is out. But I am glad that she has planted so many bee friendly plants that it appears enough for everyone. Our honey bees are very busy at about 7 am on the guara. They love it!
      Today it has rained all day (hallelujah!) and our bees have stayed indoor. – Kourosh

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    • Thank you for the comment. My major concern is the tendency for the farmers to go for monoculture. I talked to a farmer friend a couple of years ago who had planted 35 hectares of maze. That is quite a lot of land – nearly 90 acres. When that is collected, all that is left is a desert. Not even a wild flower.
      The huge fields of sunflowers near us are just the same – very picturesque when in flower, but what afterwards?
      We have never seen a solitary bee on the sunflowers, only the bumble bees and just a few honey bees collecting pollen. The bumble bees have longer tongue and thus can reach the nectar source. – Kourosh

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      • I agree, monoculture is a big problem and with the spraying out of weeds it leaves a barren landscape after the crop has finished. The stewardship schemes in the UK have encouraged some farmers to leave field margins where flowers can grow and that seems like a sensible middle way.

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  5. Kourosh, when studying the last picture with the bee…
    those look like perfectly ordinary sunflowers to me…
    the outer flowers open first and the appearance of stamens proceeds slowly inwards…
    until all is finished… like all Daisy family flowers.
    The stigma appears later…
    the outermost rings near the “true” petals…
    where the stamens have done their thing and withered…
    are now showing the double, curved forks of the stigma…
    that sequence will continue all the way to the centre.

    What is of greater concer, I feel…
    is the move you mention above…
    towards increasing acreages of monoculture…
    hedges are being ripped out and ditches filled in to make bigger, more easily worked fields…
    every hedge ripped out… and every ditch filled in…
    is another wildlife corridor obliterated…
    with a loss at the same time of wild plants that flower at different times…
    let alone the ability for small creatures to move safely to other habitats.

    And, as you mention, that variety of flowering times is very important…
    especially for you as a beekeeper…
    sunflowers are over and done in a couple of weeks…
    quicker in hot, sunny weather…
    and with the huge fields, once finished, your bees have much, much further to fly to gather a harvest…
    thus wasting valuable energy!!

    For the planet… smaller is better…
    for the greedy… larger wins over common sense!

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    • I certainly agree with your sentiments and your last comment.
      The sunflowers around us do certainly look the same. That is why all our friends had told us how quickly the bees will be using the nectar from it to fill the supers with honey. Look can certainly be deceptive. The other point is that here the fields of sunflowers last nearly a month, as the flowers in some fields fade away, others, perhaps a little shadier near woodlands start flowering.

      I am hundred percent with you on the tendency to go for monoculture of large plantations. Traditional, older varieties of plants and even fruit are destroyed so that the farmer produces one single variety of a particular fruit or vegetable for the market. That is certainly a pity.

      At the bottom of our garden, along the river, we have a small area of woodland. I try to keep it as natural as possible to shelter all the birds and other little animals that visit us regularly. We can all do only a small gesture, hoping that at least a few species of flora and fauna remain alive. – Kourosh

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      • Our sunflower crops around here last about a month, too…
        what I was thinking about was 90 acres planted at the same time…
        then standing brown and withered as the seed ripens…
        can’t be much fun for a bee to fly over that lot.

        I like your woodland walk… even if you have to take drastic action against invaders at times!
        I was thinking that you could reuse those parpaing blocks…
        hole upwards… to front longer steps… and fill the holes with very sandy soil…
        that would create nesting areas for some of Amelia’s burrowing bees.

        We’ve registered our meadow…
        between the mill stream and river…
        as a Refuge LPO…
        you will have heard of vanity publishing…
        Refuge LPO is “vanity nature reserving”…
        but, with a purpose.

        Thoroughly recommend doing it…
        at the Refuge Liasons you meet like minded people…
        and it puts 10€ a year into the LPO coffers…
        you don’t need to adhere to the LPO to do it, either.

        We joined the LPO, but are still RSPB members…
        and in my opinion, l’Oiseau magazine is far better [and thicker] than
        “Nature’s Home”… formerly Birds….
        with better, more relevant articles…
        and no “Subtly advertise your company here” articles/advertorials…
        where a small team from some office of a huge conglomerate…
        attempt to build a bridge on a reserve…
        and very rarely seem to do a follow up…
        and the Wildlife Trust seem to be going the same way, too!

        Our small gestures help… especially when they can almost join up with/into a corridor…
        but it is the volunteers/benevoles who should get the real publicity amd praise…
        they put their backs out for the organizations…
        sometimes literally!
        Tim

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  6. Hello Kourosh,

    A very interesting post, and I know that many sunflowers ( and others) sold now to gardeners in the UK lack pollen, or nectar, In some cases the flowers last much longer of course if they have no insect appeal, and are sterile – like for example most tulip cultivars. So the nurserymen approve, of these plants with longer lasting (human!) appeal.
    I’m increasingly looking at the native flowering plants in hay meadows, as sources of inspiration for working these into garden plantings to give a greater range of insect friendly flowers over a much longer season, since as your previous comments note, this is critical for most insect life cycles and greater diversity.
    By coincidence we listened to a radio interview with Prince Charles on the critical role of meadows ( and his own experience of the traditional Transylvanian hay meadows), which are immensely rich in wildlife. I’ll share the link below, mainly because in the middle of the programme HRH reads a beautiful piece about the value of hay meadows, which your many blog readers might, I think, enjoy,

    Best wishes

    Julian

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b064x6w0

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    • Many thanks, Julian

      I find your comments so much in line with our own thinking. I am not too keen in planting exotic flowers and shrubs here. Amelia and I have introduced many native wildflowers in the garden during the past few years. As you know she is very partial towards solitary bees and bumble bees. We see so many now in the garden.

      This year I collected as much seeds of the red poppy and cosmos as I could and I hope to plant a largish area near our bee hives for next summer. Poppies should come first and then the cosmos. Funny enough I also love California poppies, but it does not appear to be of much interest to bees.

      Thanks also for the link. HRH Prince Charles is someone that I admire greatly. He speaks the truth, the common sense – even though sometimes it gets him into trouble. I sometimes feel that in foreign countries they listen to him more than in his own land. The piece he read was absolutely beautiful. I’ve also often wondered what heritage we are leaving for our children and our grandchildren.

      Thank you again. I hope one day you’ll come over and visit us and share your thoughts on further developing our little patch.

      Kourosh

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